[sidebar] The Boston Phoenix
June 15 - 22, 2000


Fenway follies

A new book questions public financing of sports stadiums, and Menino's choice of lunch pals raises a question: Will the Sox relocate to Suffolk Downs? Plus, more foreign-policy woes for Bush and Gore.

by Seth Gitell

A new local voice is about to be heard on the question of public financing for sports stadiums and the Red Sox' effort to build a new ballpark -- and the Sox won't be happy with what it has to say.

Paul Weiler, the Henry J. Friendly Professor of Law at Harvard University, has just published Leveling the Playing Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better for Fans (Harvard University Press, $29.95). Currently residing in Paris, Weiler will return to America June 30 to publicize the book, which makes a strong case for private financing of new stadiums.

With its release just one month before the end of the state legislative session -- the Sox-imposed deadline for the government to make a decision about the financing of a new ballpark -- Weiler's book is sure to make political waves. He's no fringe player; the co-author of the legal treatise Sports and the Law, he's a powerful figure at the intersection of the two areas. A lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, and a Red Sox fan since he came to Boston in 1978, he co-taught a series of seminars at Harvard Law School with Red Auerbach (whom he met because he and fellow Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz had courtside seats at the Boston Garden). He's invited such political and sports luminaries as House Speaker Thomas Finneran and NBA commissioner David Stern to address his students at Harvard. His book has a blurb from Boston Globe sports columnist Will McDonough. And his main point -- that no state money should be used for the construction of new ballparks -- will bolster the argument of those who oppose the Sox' plans.

Weiler's strong position on public financing isn't the only controversial aspect of the book -- there's also his sharp criticism of the supposed economic benefits that sports teams bring to their home cities. "A major league sports franchise may well be a big part of a community's social life, but it is only a tiny part of its economic life," Weiler writes. "The typical sports franchise is a small ($80 million) business with little multiplier effect, which cannot possibly generate the $25 to $30 million a year to pay for and maintain a luxurious sports facility. Indeed, when we take into account the 'dead-weight business loss' engendered by the higher taxes (especially sales taxes) needed to pay for the facility, the real economic result of such a public sports subsidy may well be to reduce rather than enhance business activity in the region."

Reached in Paris by the Phoenix, Weiler stated the issue even more bluntly. "We have an incredible amount of taxpayer dollars that are being spent on sports stadiums, calling them public stadiums, even though the vast number of dollars are going into private hands," he said. "There is no legitimate economic justification for taxpayers' building stadiums, because there are no tangible economic benefits that go with that. If anything, raising taxes can have a negative effect on the economy."

Weiler takes a softer stance on the issue of eminent domain, however. He believes local governments should use their powers of eminent domain to take the property needed to build new stadiums. That said, he adds a caveat that won't make Red Sox CEO John Harrington happy: Weiler says that teams should reimburse the government for the cost of land. If such a policy were put into practice, it would nix the deal for the Red Sox, who have said they can pay no more than $352 million for the new ballpark. Land costs may approach $450 million. (See "The Sox Can't Afford the Fenway," News and Features, May 26.)

Weiler reached his position on eminent domain after examining one of the most wrenching ballpark battles in baseball history -- Walter O'Malley's decision to move the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. In recounting the Dodgers' story, Weiler relates some details that put O'Malley's actions in a new light. O'Malley offered to pay for the new stadium, but he wanted to place it in the heart of Brooklyn. The city would have taken the land for the ballpark using eminent domain, and then O'Malley would have paid the city back. O'Malley's plan collapsed when Robert Moses, then New York's transportation and development czar, nixed O'Malley's location in favor of the Queens site that later became Shea Stadium. Because Moses vetoed the idea of using eminent domain to take property from one private owner to give to another, Los Angeles got the Dodgers. Queens, eventually, got the Mets.

Weiler sees a relatively simple solution to the Red Sox conundrum: the Sox should trade the land under the old Fenway Park for the land they need for the new ballpark. "Once they have gotten the stadium moved over to this new land, then the land they now own would be very valuable land. They could just trade it," he says.

Finally, Weiler emphasizes that the Commonwealth is nearly unique when it comes to financing new stadiums. He says Massachusetts is one of the few municipalities that require sports teams to pony up the funds for their facilities -- the so-called Finneran Principles, named for the House Speaker during the battle over the Patriots' efforts to build a stadium.

Now Weiler's book will help spread the word around the country and possibly pressure the Red Sox here.

Speaking of the Red Sox, political observers and pundits continue to speculate on Mayor Thomas Menino's master plan for the team. The official line out of City Hall is that Menino is firmly committed to a Fenway location for the Red Sox. But an increasing number of voices say the mayor is waiting for the death of the Fenway plan to put forward an alternative.

Giving credence to this theory is a series of Menino sightings around the city. The mayor has been spotted dining at Back Bay's Abe & Louie's and at Joseph's on High Street in the Financial District with Joseph O'Donnell of Boston Concessions and David Passafaro, Menino's former chief of staff and a current O'Donnell employee. One report -- from before the recent blow-up between the mayor and city-council president James Kelly -- put Kelly with the trio. What are these meetings about? Menino may want O'Donnell to step in as a capital partner with the team, or he may be trying to broker a deal where O'Donnell, who is known to covet the team, purchases it. An additional wrinkle in this plan could involve O'Donnell's trying to build a new ballpark in some other location -- the old incinerator site or, as has been strongly hinted at, the Suffolk Downs location on the East Boston-
Revere line.

Nothing is conclusive yet. One sports insider points out that Passafaro is a friend of both the mayor and O'Donnell, and that it makes sense that all would dine together. But why invite Kelly to the table? Common sense suggests that something deeper is afoot with the mayor and his plans for the Red Sox.

There is other drama in the world of politics beyond the Fenway/Red Sox saga. Take the recent death of Hafez al-Assad. President Bill Clinton's misadventures with Assad in the months before the Syrian president's death provide further evidence of the way Clinton has mishandled foreign policy (see "Talking Politics," News and Features, June 9). No more than two months ago, President Clinton all but begged the ailing Assad to agree to a peace deal with Israel. Assad said no, despite Israel's willingness to give back the Golan Heights, which it took after the 1967 war between the countries. This was one final victory over the West for the Syrian strongman, and a humiliation for Clinton.

But what was the president thinking in the first place? Before Clinton embarked on his latest mission to woo Assad into a peace deal, he presumably had access to the same evidence that most Syrian analysts were privy to: namely, that Assad was sick with numerous illnesses, including lymphoma, kidney failure, and heart disease. In his intelligence file, Clinton would have read that Assad's son Bashar is 34, inexperienced, and next in line for the Syrian leadership. He could have learned that Assad's brother Rifaat al-Assad, leader of the notorious "Pink Panther" military unit and a conspirator in a 1984 coup attempt, still views himself as the rightful successor to Assad. Finally, he would have been aware that all the Assads come from a minority sect within Syria, the Alawi, representing at most 15 percent of the population. If Clinton had held the same spell over Assad that he does over other world leaders, Clinton could have finessed an Israel-Syria deal just in time for the green Bashar, an ophthalmologist, to take power. But being the signatory or executor of a document recognizing Israel's right to exist -- which surely would be an object of great controversy, as it would reverse more than five decades of Syrian policy -- would mark Bashar for death. That is, if he hasn't been targeted already.

Young Bashar faces two tests from within his own country, Syria analysts say. The first is one of internal Alawite dynamics. Bashar must counter the threat coming from his uncle Rifaat, who went into exile two years ago. Rifaat al-Assad now lives outside of Syria -- recent reports show him living in France, Spain, and even just outside Washington, DC -- but he still boasts a substantial power base within the country. Meanwhile, the majority of the population -- 85 percent -- are Sunni, and are still smarting from a 1982 massacre of 20,000 people in Hama, ordered by Assad on the grounds that some belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni group that opposed him. The Sunni haven't forgotten this and may be looking for revenge.

"I think he [Bashar] is in some serious trouble," says David Wurmser, the director of Middle East studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "There's no clear Alawite closing of ranks behind him."

Another long-time Syria watcher, Daniel Nassif, executive director of the American Lebanese Institute, concurs that Bashar is facing major difficulties. "I think it's up in the air if he will last after six months," says Nassif. "The old guard will oppose change. If he wants to liberalize the economy or go after corruption, he will create a lot of enemies."

The message of all this is that Bashar al-Assad will last beyond the Clinton presidency. But chaos in Syria will be another problem that the next US president -- Al Gore or George W. Bush -- will have to confront.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]phx.com.

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